It was after 2am in the United Arab Emirates but neither Mike Ashley nor his mobile phone were at rest. Newcastle had just surrendered 3-0 at Brighton on a miserable Saturday night in late March and the visiting players’ second-half body language prompted speculation that they wanted Steve Bruce out.
There is little doubt that several senior professionals at St James’ Park expected their manager to have been sacked by the time the team’s return flight from the south coast touched down at Newcastle airport, after a run of only two wins in 20 games. Ashley, though, has always revelled in being a contrary, often counterintuitive, owner and from his temporary base in Dubai he told club executives Bruce was going nowhere.
Given that Newcastle were hovering only two points above the relegation zone and were apparently unravelling fast, the retail magnate’s message prompted a certain astonishment. Yet as fans snapped up local Sunday newspapers complete with “Enough is enough” headlines above comment pieces claiming Bruce’s position was “untenable”, club officials began briefing a very different message: there would be no changing of the managerial guard.
Since then, the clocks have gone forward and Newcastle’s fortunes are brightening in synch with the spring skies. In four matches post-Brighton, they have beaten Burnley and West Ham, and drawn with Tottenham and Liverpool. Should Arsenal be defeated at St James’ Park on Sunday, the 39-point mark will be reached, along with near certain immunity from an imminent fall into the Championship.
While doubts about the manager’s longer-term future remain – along with lingering tensions between Bruce and certain players – the mood music has changed appreciably. There have been various contributory factors, with the return from injury of the gloriously unpredictable Allan Saint-Maximin foremost among them.
While the French winger – who has not always exactly seen eye to eye with Bruce but is now thriving in a free attacking role – destabilises opposition defences, Martin Dubravka looks restored to the top of his goalkeeping game and the Arsenal loanee Joe Willock has revelled in stepping off the bench and scoring vital late goals.
Critically, Saint-Maximin and company are bolstered by a sturdy framework within which to improvise. Bruce has spent most of his Newcastle tenure seemingly hellbent on replacing the central defensive trinity beloved of his predecessor, Rafael Benítez, with a flat back four, but most of the squad are happier and more effective in their old configuration.
What Bruce now describes as “the horror show” at Brighton finally persuaded him to abandon the 4-3-1-2 system featuring a false 9 flanked by split strikers which had, albeit fleetingly, looked clever before ceasing to function effectively after his leading scorer, Callum Wilson, sustained a hamstring injury.
Wilson is likely to be passed fit to start alongside Saint-Maximin against Arsenal in a 3-5-2 formation fortified by the underrated Paul Dummett’s recent restoration on the left of the defensive trio.
Benítez – who could yet return should Ashley win his pending arbitration case against the Premier League and Newcastle’s Saudi Arabian-led takeover proceed – always praised Dummett’s “tactical intelligence”. Tellingly, his understanding with the similarly recalled left wing-back, Matt Ritchie, has proved pivotal. Ritchie, too, had been exiled from the first team, with his frustration manifested when he called Bruce “a coward” during a well-documented training ground altercation.
Newcastle’s manager declined to hold a grudge and instead transplanted this feistiness on to the pitch, where Ritchie has galvanised teammates and supplied a stream of incisive crosses and dead balls.
Many games are in effect won and lost in central midfield and it is in this department that Sean Longstaff is reborn. A midfielder on whom Manchester United once wanted to spend £20m seemed to have been placed in Newcastle’s deep freeze, but after Isaac Hayden sustained a serious knee injury against Brighton a recalled Longstaff responded by producing his best form since Benítez’s tenure.
Last week he gave a series of instructive interviews to the club’s media channels. “To not be involved for so long was really frustrating,” Longstaff said. “There are maybe managers that like you or don’t like you and there’s nothing you can do about that. It was just about training well every day and trying to force the staff to give me a chance.”
On Friday Bruce deliberately made a point of publicly thanking his players for their response to the Brighton debacle. With hindsight, he was wise to ignore the raised eyebrows and give Newcastle’s squad six days off to allow tempers to cool before a series of candid meetings resulted in a truce between dressing-room factions.
Longstaff offers some interesting insight. “I think with the bad run we had it would have been easy for people to go the other way but that’s not what this group of players is about,” he said. “The mentality, the character and the determination of this team is something that can’t be questioned. We’ve got a lot of good professionals, people who’ve been here a long time and who understand what it means to play for Newcastle United.”